Friday, May 24, 2013

Circle of Life

Farming is about cycles. You know, “for every season, turn, turn,” that sort of Mother-Earth-with-a-tambourine sentiment. And I have to say, after an initial blush of enthusiasm for the snake-eating-its-own-tail circle of life, I had come to hate the cycles. Spring a time of rebirth and renewal? Yup – but also of killer frosts that occur AFTER the last frost date (which is supposed to be an AVERAGE, so that makes no sense to me), still born lambs, and the arrival of the lovely fluttering white moths (that are NOT peaceful butterflies tipping their delicate wings to me as I garden, the salute of a fellow creature – they are nasty parasites waiting to lay the eggs of their vine borer evil spawn on my squash plants so monsters can destroy it from the inside out and render me, again, the only gardener who can’t grow zucchini).
This spring though, I might reconsider. We are seeing the cycling back of people, and I am finding that more enjoyable than watching livestock die. Green Fence Farm 2.0, Max and Vanessa, are making great progress on their slice of farmland. And not only that, but Max has started working for Tom Hayman of Grains of Sense, a craft coffee roaster located in downtown Staunton. Grains of Sense was one of our tent neighbors when Green Fence Farm sold at the Staunton Farmers Market, but the connectivity doesn’t end there. Grains of Sense shares store-space with Nu Beginning Farm, run by John and Stella Methany, also long-time Staunton Farmers Market vendors. In addition, John worked for a couple of years on Green Fence Farm and was a regular contributor (bread, jam, and vegetables) to our CSA back when we had the energy for such things.
(OK, EVERYBODY! Will the circle be unbroken…)
But I am not done yet. After John left GFF for greener pastures (or, as they are called in agriculture, a profitable business), we had for a season a fabulous intern, James Cooke, who was trying everything he could think of to get out of being an Richmond architect, including taking from us minimum wage and a lot of blow-hardy bad advice on how to make a farm work (Ha! He should have been talking to John). Fast forward three years, and Jamie has escaped Alcatraz and landed in his own business (Black Swan Books and Music) in Staunton, just a couple blocks from John and Tom’s store.
(By and by Lord, by and by…)
Still not done. Tomorrow 5-7 PM we will be hosting a book signing for Nick’s new novel (he writes better than he farms, I promise), Steel’s Treasure, at, of course, Jamie’s store (see the poster for the event below, which was designed by daughter Vivian, who will be around the farm this summer as she returns to her job as a counselor at Camp Mont Shenandoah and her boyfriend Will Root stays with Vanessa and Max and works for the summer on the farm which, if I am figuring this right, means Will will probably be opening a pool hall in Staunton about this time next year).
(There’s a better world a-waiting…)
Of course, John and Tom are invited to the book signing, and Jamie will be there because he owns the place. Viv is attending, as are Vanessa and Max and Austin and Liz, who are staying for the weekend in what has become their vacation cabin, which is the house we built twenty years ago so we would have a place to bring the newborn Viv to experience the cycles of rural life.
(In the sky, Lord, in…the….skkkyyyyyyy.)

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Bequia: Where to Eat, Part I

Port Elizabeth, Hamilton, Cemetery Hill, O’car Reform, and Belmont  viewed from  Old Fort Hamilton

[NOTE: I am cross-posting this to my Active Voice (writing) blog and my Green Fence Farm (farming and eating) blog, which means that the 14 of my Facebook friends who signed up for the Active Voice and Green Fence Farm pages will get multiple notices. I’m a little bit sorry for that because I know you liked both pages, not because you actually LIKED them (in that junior high school crush sort of way), but because you felt sorry for my feeble attempts at taming the social media lion and wanted me not to go back to sending you updates, many of which looked like manifestos from psycho-killers, just not quite as well written, typed on my (self-correcting, mind you) electric typewriter from college.  I’m only a little sorry because I do like the impression the multiple posts (of the same piece) gives of great productivity on my part.  And the reason this is ending up on the Green Fence Farm page is that, though I am on an island (Bequia) and nowhere near the farm right now, I am still eating and writing about it.]

When I last wrote, I was pondering the impossibility of ever writing my planned guide to the island of Bequia because I had discovered I was going to have to do research, which could involve a lot of work (THIS is why I know I am destined to be a fiction writer, or one of those essayists who just looks out the window and writes about birds, because I am much better at making shit up than researching, especially if it involves leaving my chair, which I take great pains to put in an interesting place (Look! Birds!) and pillow up adequately).  

This whole research problem reared its ugly head when I realized that my “Where to Eat” chapter was going to involve more than just going to a bunch of restaurants and eating a bunch of courses (something I am particularly good at). No, I would have to taste Nick’s food too, which will be a struggle because one of the tenets on which our marriage is based is a commitment not to share food. I’d have to interview the owner or the chef – who around here is either going to be a native Bequian or a Scandinavian (and I can’t understand either accent) and get some quaint story about how they wanted to continue their dear mother’s tradition of boiling the crap out of stuff in crockpots or how their grandfather always dreamed of coming to the tropics and smoking fish. And I would have to RESEARCH (see? That word again) the hours and addresses of the places.

I know what you are thinking – “you’re going to the places, you must at least already know the addresses” – but you would be wrong, which is why you have not yet written a travel guide (unless you have, in which case, it is why you have not written a travel guide to Bequia). There are no addresses here; there is no mail delivery (see previous post on guy handing mail out of the back of the ferry) and only one main road, which was built, I believe, by the Romans and hasn’t been maintained since (OK, you homeschoolers, don’t write that last part down, I made it up: the bit about the Romans, that is, not the maintenance).

What there are are many, many, many “towns.” Most of these would fit into what we on the mainland would call “a block.” Some would fit into what we would call “two huts and an abandoned rum shack with a goat living in it.”

For example, the main grouping of towns (which the locals refer to, confusingly, as “town”) consists of the following: Port Elizabeth, Hamilton, Cemetery Hill, O’car Reform, and Belmont. There cannot be more than 100 structures total in these towns, and from any place in anyone of them you can pretty much see all of all the rest of them.

The ferry from St. Vincent arrives in Port Elizabeth, which is also referred to as the capitol of Bequia in any tourist guide you can find. So, the traveller coming into the port would assume, as I did, that the groupings of houses and a couple restaurants to your left; the half pedestrian mall, half street (with a boundary that is fluid and the subject of vocal controversy, mainly among pedestrians who have just had their feet run over and the taxi drivers that did the running over), shops, stands, and a government building in front of you; and the waterside cafes and small hotels to your right were all part of the thriving Bequian capitol, Port Elizabeth.

You would be wrong.

In fact, as far as I can tell, Port Elizabeth includes only the port itself; the tourist information building right as you exit the port, the lady selling knitted Rasta hats to its left; the tree under which the taxi drivers hang out and discuss how much they hate the current government and why tourists keep sticking their feet under their cabs’ tires; the government building across the street; and a small canal of festering runoff from the gutters. If you walk from that government building less than a dirt road block to Knight’s Food store, you are in the town of Hamilton. A block to the right and you are in Belmont. A block the left you are in O’car Reform. Cemetery Hill? To the right and up another block from the port, near the cemetery (duh). The whole metro area can be walked in about 10 minutes, 15 if you stop for ice cream.

The Port Elizabeth/Hamilton distinction really tripped me up our first week on the island. We had asked Cass, our housekeeper and native Bequian, where to get groceries. She informed us that Hamilton had a Knights (the Bequian version of Safeway, except without the parking lot, pharmacy, produce section, soda section, meats, or pretty much anything but rum, fruit juice, canned beans, and staples tied in small plastic bags without labels so you have to smell everything to make sure it is salt, for example, and not laundry detergent. Knights deserves and will get its own post later).

Nick did the first shopping trip on his own, and later that day, as we were driving to a restaurant in O’car Reform, he pointed out the store, which is about the size of a White Castle, and I said, “So that is why you came home with only a can of pigeon peas and a small bag of laundry detergent. You were supposed to go to the store in HAMILTON,” which I assured him was no doubt a fabulous marvel of megastore efficiency, with Whole Foods-like displays of local fruits and Starbucks coffee.

Despite the fact that, by the time I had finished saying that sentence, we had arrived at the restaurant that was in O’car Reform – and despite the fact that I knew from Cass that O’Car Reform came after Hamilton – I still insisted that we go the next day to find the real supermarket in Hamilton.

We took the main road over the pedestrian mall, by the port and the restaurant from the day before, around herds of goats, school children, and a guy carrying a fish on his head, persevering even when it really seemed the road had turned into someone’s driveway and finally got to – a dead end at a lookout and a historic plaque about the fort that used to be there (also a couple of old canons, which made the trip not a waste for Nick).

So, yeah, the Knights in Hamilton is the Knights that is 20 feet from Port Elizabeth, and Cass had a huge laugh over us driving “all the way” to Old Fort Hamilton (like we drove from DC to Beckley, WV looking for a Sam’s club). The island communication network being what it is, that story made the rounds pretty quickly, and I think I heard a local guitar group singing a ballad about it a couple nights ago (“Oh the stupid white man and his fat wife, drove all the way to Old Fort Hamilton looking for a store, do dah, do dah), though it could have been Day-o. I really have a hard time with the local accent.

Apologies for my Green Fence Farm readers that I have yet to get to anything about food yet, unless you consider laundry detergent a food, but I will in the next post, at which point you will, I assure you, appreciate all this essential background information.

Next post: Bequia: Where to Eat, Really This Time, Part II

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Green Fence Farm Team Expands

I am learning that blogs are like unwritten thank you notes, full of good intentions and guilt at their lack of fulfillment. Then, if it has been a year or so, you start imagining the creative and convoluted excuse you will proffer, the very cool paper you will fly to Rome to buy, the fabulous thank you gift you will hand craft out of your own hair you pulled out and glued together with your distilled tears of shame – oops now it is two years and two thank you’s undone and you are just hoping Aunty X or Grandma Y will just send you the frosty Christmas card you deserve next go around.

So I haven’t written a blog post since 2010, and I haven’t written a blog post for my other blog since a few months ago when I announced that you could expect a great revival of blog posts from Active Voice starting right then. I’ve been busy; I don’t have the right paper; I had to get a new computer; I had to work, not work, travel, eat, take a nap. Whatever, I am here now, right?

And I am keeping this short, to tamp down any expectation that there will be any new post anytime soon. So read up, this may be all you hear from us until 2016.

First, an announcement: there will be new blood spilled in the annual letting that we call farming on Green Fence Farm this season. To our great delight and surprise, Nick and my daughter Vanessa and her fiancé Max, pictured beaming in a decidedly unfarmlike setting above, will be moving from Colorado to Greenville this April. Both will be looking for work in the area with Vanessa hoping to find a public school teaching job by autumn. In the meanwhile, they will be farming a plot on our land (what we affectionately call, “the crappy rock beds”). They will be joined by our intern from 2009, James Cooke, owner and operator of the new (and incredible) Black Swan Books in downtown Staunton, who will be working the “weedy patch over by the pig pen”. With all that fresh talent, chances are someone will produce something Green Fence Farm can sell this summer, if not in DC, then at one of the markets around Staunton.

The other note for today is to point out a blog we love byIra Wallace writing for Mother Earth on gardening specifically in the Southeast (she has a book on the same topic coming out next month). I saw Ms. Wallace at this year’s Heritage Mountain Festival at Monticello, where she is an organizer and teacher. She talked about how most of the notable writers on sustainable and organic vegetable farming (yes, Elliot Coleman, I am talking about you) hail from the North or North-North, and the rest of us, who so want to emulate their results, read with tears in our eyes (or is that sweat) of harvesting snow-sweetened spinach in September, about the same time we are suffering from heat stroke while trying to beat the grasshoppers off the baked brussel sprout plants. Ira Wallace is going to solve this problem for me.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Tales from the Expoland Poultry Sale

As many of you may know, Nick and I have decided to cut back on our commercial farming and concentrate on homesteading. We discovered what everyone else already knows: we are too old to run a vegetable packing and hauling operation. As esteemed a career longshoreman is, it is not what I envisioned when getting into farming.

We also had an “ah ha!” moment (actually, more of a “duh!” moment) when doing our books midseason (hey, at least we do them). Now, we always knew the farm lost money. We have, for every year we have farmed, been in that year before the year we make a profit. But what we didn’t realize is that, even keeping our current number of employees, we lose LESS money when we sell absolutely nothing than when we run our (on paper) wildly successful and oversubscribed DC CSA and restaurant sales business.

So, starting next season, we are growing for ourselves and anyone who is really nice to us. We’ll probably still sell some meat, mainly by pre-order. We’ll have more time to enjoy our weekend guests, and we’ll take vacations in the summer, so I can stop bitterly mumbling through August as I watch Facebook status update after status update: “Perfect weather on the Vineyard again!” “Another beautiful day at the beach!” “Clam bake time!” Mine: “Still at the farm. Still hot. Pigs smell.”

And with our change in gears, the blog will change too. Though I will keep posting recipes and ideas for the CSA vegetables, I want to start using more to write about life on the farm. For years, people who get the farm’s rambling emails about sale items or the CSA have told me I ought to write a book (and I DO know they probably meant: “you ought to write a book instead of bothering me with all this claptrap”). I agree (with both sentiments), but I also have found I freeze right up when sitting down, plop, to WRITE A BOOK. So I thought I would ease into it one blog post at a time (and yes, two hours to put my head under in a cold pool).

That’s a long introduction for today’s dissertation on the Expoland poultry auction, my morning’s activity, and where I am sitting right now, on the back of the trailer in one of the few poop free spots available, marveling at the fast internet connection here in the middle of a gravel parking lot in the middle of a field in the middle of an industrial parks in the middle of the mountains.

Every third Saturday, outside of Staunton VA, in Expoland, Augusta Feed sponsors a tailgate sale. $5 to get in for sellers, mostly poultry and rabbits though today I‘ve seen potbelly pigs, miniature goats, turkeys, ducks, and a ratty dog.

This is only the second time I’ve been to Expoland. The other time was the Augusta County fair a few years ago. I remember it being really hot, really dusty, and really full of things you don’t want to see or smell on a hot dusty day in a gravel parking lot: Fried Oreo stands, people standing in line at the fried Oreo stands wearing halter tops (and clearly not on the first fried Oreo of their lives), nervous sheep (or perhaps not nervous but suffering from irritable bowel syndrome sheep), fat, sweaty crying toddlers set in the dirt while their caretakers tried to toss rings over soda bottles to win the highly flammable large pink stuffed snake(with bead eyes perfect for the fat, sweaty, crying babies to stuff up their noses later) that I swear I saw for sale the day before sitting for sale on a piece of plastic outside the gas station.

“ExpoLAND” suggests an all encompassing expo experience, in the way that DisneyLAND is an overload, all senses Disney extravaganza. But this is no land. Maybe Expoarea. Or Expogravelparkinglot.

The tailgate sale doesn’t even get to use the Expoland building – a cement floored, corrugated steel barn with bathrooms, a fact I would have resented more had there been anywhere to buy coffee at the sale. But live poultry was pretty much it, which surprised me. When we were all scared of bird flu, before the year of the swine refocused our paranoia, I remember all sorts of warnings about “open air poultry markets.” I also remember thinking at the time, since we don’t live in Vietnam, what are the chances I’ll run into someone who has been to an open air poultry market. Turns out, I am now someone who goes to open air poultry markets. I’ll put “flu vaccine” on this year’s to do list.

We brought a bunch of our older layers to sell, thinning the flock in anticipation of our downsizing. They sold in the first 30 minutes, with Nick inexplicitly haggling the price of the first lot down to the great confusion of the buyers, a group of Arab men, only one of whom spoke English, and none of whom understood why Nick, in a bad Arab accent (his way of helping bridge the language gap), kept insisting on a price lower than the sign said. “Bird flu,” I thought of adding to help make Nick’s case, but didn’t because my fake Arab accent is even worse than his.

It smells like fermenting corn here. Corn and chicken poop.

Heard often as the crowd walks back and forth: “Them’s good eatin’.”

Heard only once: “I don’t eat nuthin’ that comes in my house. Do you eat your family??”

Constantly in the background: Crowing, all sorts, some pathetic, some triumphant. The banty roosters are the triumphant ones, I believe, because they are too small to eat. I do not understand the sheer number of banties on sale here today. We have a few, but they were given to us. They are amusing running around the barn, but I cannot see paying for one, even less moving the volume of banties that seem to be moving today. I think they are the beanie babies of the poultry world.

Seen: Two big men, in their thirties, in baseball caps and sleeveless t-shirts, coffee in one hand, chicken leg (attached to the rest of the chickens, nice Buff Orringtons) in the other. Years ago, I would have thought, “What’s with the chickens?” Today, I thought, “where’d they get the coffee?”

The king of the poultry tailgate sales: He is about 6’ 4”, tanned, with flowing silver hair, and a ravaged face in the manner of Keith Richards. He wears low, loose jeans that probably were new in Haight Ashbury circa ’68 and a vest, no shirt. He is legendary in the world of poultry arbitrage. He churns chickens like butter, picking up boxes at this sale, selling them at a profit at the next sale down the road. He makes his living this way, tailgate sales only, and he is alive so I guess it is working for him.

Two of the largest roosters I’ve ever seen, in a cage, the sole item for sale in the back of a sad looking man’s pick-up. “Just don’t have the heart to kill ‘em anymore,” he said as I admired the birds.

By 10 AM, we had sold all the bird we brought, including the Barred Rock that escaped and was chased around the parking lot by a Mexican in a red shiny shirt, two women with matching John Deere t-shirts, and a chubby preteen in a glittery tube top and high heeled cowboy boots. We loaded up our tables and empty cages in order to get back to the farm quickly so we could work outside in the hottest part of the day. As we drove off, I heard the king of the tailgate sales making one last deal for a cage full of banty roosters. All is as it should be in the Land of Expos.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


Summer means basil and basil means pesto (though you can use all sorts of non-basily things to make pesto. In fact, the only thing you REALLY need in pesto, in my opinion is garlic and olive oil. And salt. You always need salt).

I make pesto in the Cuisinart, and I can’t imagine doing it any other way (blender, maybe – mortar and pestle, you’ve got to be kidding). You start with garlic. I like pesto really garlicy, so I put in maybe 8-10 peeled cloves. Then I add some more because I am already getting the Cuisinart dirty, so why not use it to chop garlic for whatever else you are making for dinner – or use it in a batch of salad dressing.

After the garlic is done, throw in a small handful of nuts. Pine nuts are traditional, but they are so expensive, and if they are just one day older than they should be they make your mouth taste bitter for a month (I am not exaggerating, this happened to me, and apologies to the Pine Nut Promotion board). I use whatever nut is on sale – walnuts usually -- and sometimes don’t use nuts at all, like when I make spring garlic pesto.

Chop the nuts with the garlic. Then jam a passel of basil leaves in the Cuisinart – fill it up – and chop that. Salt. Then, with the motor running, pour in a stream of olive oil (I should say “good quality olive oil” because recipes always say that, as if, without that, you would just go out and buy motor-grade olive oil. And why don’t we get that on every ingredient? I assume “good quality” butter milk is better than the regular sort – same with “good quality” flour or nuts or chocolate, but with olive oil, we have to be reminded to buy the decent stuff).

When the mixture gets to be the consistency of melted ice cream (with basil sprinkles), taste and salt more if needed. If you are freezing the pesto, do it now before you add parmesan cheese. You can also use it pre-cheese as an oil in which to sauté vegetables, like some of that squash you have all over the place. If you are eating it right away, add parmesan cheese (good quality, please), enough to get the pesto to the consistency of onion dip.

Now use it for everything – combined with tomato sauce on homemade pizza, spread on old bread or pita and toasted for garlic bread, tossed with mayonnaise and used as a dressing for pasta salad with veggies or for (good quality Green Fence Farm) chicken salad, on a cracker or slice of bread with a slice of tomato and brie or blue cheese.

And, as I alluded to before, you can substitute any number of things for basil (or combine with basil) in this recipe – spring garlic (in which case, obviously, cut out the garlic cloves), green onions (in which case, cut down the garlic cloves), parsley, red pepper, olives.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Caveat Emptor

Check out this succinct explanation of what we were all afraid was true. All of the meats and eggs from Green Fence Farm are pastured. Though, as the article explains, all are not wholly grass fed – chickens and pigs can’t get enough protein and energy from a diet of only grass. Our pigs, for example, have a diet of grass, natural feed, and slop from our and the Staunton Grocery kitchen; the latter means, of course, they eat better than me. And the chickens get day old bread from Newtown Bakery – or they get the day old bread that Nick and I don’t pull out of the bag and eat ourselves.

Monday, July 26, 2010


We finally got some rain, and so, as the Capitol Hill CSA members are well aware, we are awash in squash. Like basil and tomatoes, they love the hot weather as long as they get a drink once in a while (not unlike me, though the drinks need to come more frequently).

The recipe and picture below were in the Washington Post last Wednesday. My mother made the recipe for a family and friends dinner this weekend. But of course, coming from a long line of people who do not take instruction well, she made several modifications – the squash was blanched, not grilled. The cheese was not pepper jack, because several members of the eating team don’t like it – I think she used a regular jack, or maybe a mix of a mild cheddar and jack. No pimentos, because Nick refuses to eat any cooked peppers. No cilantro because she had already veered away from the Mexican version. More sour cream than the recipe called for because it was in her fridge and needed to get used up. Some mayonnaise too because this is a SOUTHERN summer recipe, and all southern summer recipes, including cake, include mayonnaise.


Every Southern Junior League cookbook includes a version of squash casserole, which always makes an appearance in the summer as soon as squash becomes abundant. Pepper Jack cheese and cilantro give this one a Southwestern edge.

MAKE AHEAD: The casserole can be assembled and refrigerated a day in advance. Bring it to room temperature before baking it on the grill.

4 to 6 servings


• 1 1/2 pounds medium yellow squash and zucchini, trimmed and cut lengthwise into 1/2-inch planks
• Salt
• Freshly ground black pepper
• 1/2 cup creme fraiche or sour cream
• 4 scallions, white and light-green parts, chopped (1/3 cup)
• 3/4 cup grated pepper Jack cheese
• 2 tablespoons pimentos, drained
• Leaves and tender stems from 8 sprigs cilantro, chopped (2 tablespoons)
• 1/3 cup panko (Japanese-style) bread crumbs
• 1 tablespoon salted butter, cut into small cubes
• 1/4 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika

Prepare the grill for direct heat: If using a gas grill, preheat to medium-high (450 degrees). If using a charcoal grill, light the briquettes in a chimney starter and let them burn until the flames subside and a light layer of ash covers the briquettes (about 20 to 25 minutes). Dump the briquettes in a mound (or, preferably, into 2 half-moon-shaped briquette baskets) in the center of the grill. For a medium-hot fire, you should be able to hold your hand about 6 inches above the coals for 6 to 8 seconds. Spray the grill rack with nonstick cooking oil spray, then place it on the grill.

Lightly spray the squash slices on both sides with olive oil cooking spray. Season generously with salt and pepper. Cook the squash for about 6 minutes, turning frequently, until the slices are well browned on both sides and soft but still slightly firm. Transfer to a bowl and cool completely. The yield should be about 3 cups.

Blot the cooled squash slices on paper towels, then cut them it into 1/2-inch chunks, placing them in a large bowl. Add the creme fraiche or sour cream, scallions, cheese, pimento and cilantro; mix well and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Lightly spray a 2-quart casserole with nonstick cooking oil spray, then spread the squash mixture in the dish. Scatter the bread crumbs and butter cubes evenly over the top, then sprinkle with smoked paprika.

Meanwhile, prepare the grill for indirect grilling: If using charcoal, light the charcoal in a chimney starter and let the briquettes burn until the flames subside and a light layer of ash covers the briquettes (about 20 to 25 minutes). Open the grill's bottom vents. Dump the lighted coals into 2 mounds (or, preferably, into 2 half-moon-shaped briquette baskets) on opposite sides of the grill. (If using gas, with a two-burner grill, set one burner to medium-low and leave the other unlit; with three or more burners, set the outside or front and rear burners to medium-low and leave the center burners unlit.)

Place the casserole on the area of the grill that is not directly above the briquettes or a lit burner. Cover the grill, vents open, and cook for 30 to 40 minutes, until the casserole is lightly browned and bubbling. (The internal temperature of the grill should hover around 350 degrees.) Serve hot.